GM will soon be sending updated large pickup trucks, the 2007 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra, to dealers’ lots across America. I commented last June on the improvement in fuel economy GM has made on its large pickups and SUVs.

Oh, Fortuna! Look at how the wheel has spun!

Last June gasoline prices (regular $2.16/gal) were easing after briefly flirting with $2.28 per gallon in April. We thought April was the cruelest month, and June looked much kinder. June turned out to be the lull before a storm (two storms, actually) of cruelty. The world looked beautiful in June. Sure, there were whispered rumors of a cell of academic scribblers that was preparing a report detailing just how vulnerable Detroit had become through its dependence on SUVs and pickups for profits. Gasoline $2.86 per gallon? Implausible. Highly unlikely. Gasoline $3.37 per gallon? Outrageous! Flat out NUTS! Those academics have been to one too many Dead concerts or something.

Gasoline in fact spiked to $3.069 per gallon in the week ending 9/5/06, and Detroit’s losses caused by three-dollar gasoline continue to mount; exceeding the outrageous worst case of the academics. Gasoline stands today at $3.00 per gallon. But hope springs eternal in Detroit. GM rolled out its new SUVs recently and is soon rolling out its new pickups. Welcome to Three-Dollar Gasoline World. Are critics questioning the wisdom of continuing to count on profits from gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups? No problem for Detroit’s spinmeisters,"Three-dollar gasoline hurt Detroit? Conventional Wisdom! Tell me something I don’t know!"

July 2005 was a very good month for pickup trucks. But July 2006 was a very bad month for pickup trucks. Sales of all large pickups were down dramatically: Ford F-Series (-46%), Chevrolet Silverado (-28%), GMC Sierra (-25%), Dodge Ram (-30%), Nissan Titan (-35%), and Toyota Tundra (-4%).

Pickups Drivers

There are two types of people, pickup drivers and wusses. Full disclosure: I had my own pickup truck for a few months, but traded it for a sedan when the guys (pickup drivers, of course) who loaded my new big-box retail purchase in the bed ridiculed me for having an undamaged bed-liner, a clear signal to a real pickup driver that here was a wuss trying to pass for one of them. I am a wuss. I don’t haul stuff. I don’t hunt, fish, or camp. Frankly, I was relieved. To thine own self be true. I study pickups and pickup drivers like Margaret Mead studied the Samoans.

Pickups, Loyalty, and Winning World War II

Pickup truck drivers are more loyal to the segment and their brand than any other group of drivers. Who but a Dodge Ram driver would stick a decal of Calvin urinating on a Ford logo on his pickup? why, a Chevrolet Silverado driver would, of course!

Pickups have a rich history. Check here, here, and here for histories of pickups by the Big Three. From 1946 to 1968, Ford Motor Co. built and sold Mercury Pickups in Canada. The pickup truck, a tough utilitarian work vehicle, had its finest hour (and highest market share) during World War II.

The War saw the automakers’ factories converted to the building of tanks, planes, and other military transportation equipment. According to this source during the War 56,128 light-duty trucks (nearly all pickups) were built for the military. Farmers complained that the shortage of civilian pickups was destroying their industry. Then, as now, farmers had powerful friends in Washington, who let GM build their half-ton 115-inch wheelbase pickup in 1945 for "qualified essential civilian users" (a.k.a. farmers).

Pickups and Cowboys

Not all cowboys drive pickups, and not all pickups are driven by cowboys, though the correlation seems very high. Here is a cowboy poem from here:
You can always tell a cowboy, /By lookin’ at his truck./ It’s like gettin’ on a 2 year old,/ You know he’s gonna’ buck./ His truck will have the usual stuff./ But no chrome or fancy wheels./ Just look upon the dash,/ And you’ll find his latest deals.

The cowboys of Brokeback Mountain drove a pickup truck. A 1950 GMC pickup. Could this have been a product placement by GM? Will we see Heath and Jack in GMC Sierra ads? A clever way to market to gays yet avoid a backlash like the boycott against Ford for advertising in the Advocate? If so, GM may want to look into hiring the Indiana father and son who won the Brokeback truck in an eBay auction. and took it on a trip to Canada. Not to imply that the Indiana father or son are gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Pickups and Seat Belts

A perhaps more manly image for GM can be found in pickup truck drivers’ resistance to wearing seat-belts. This study said that pickup occupants were much less likely to buckle-up than occupants of cars, vans, or SUVs. Drivers of pickups see themselves as the last rugged individualists, holding out against an intrusive nanny state. Americans love taciturn Gary Cooper heroes, and since dead men don’t talk…

The Decline of the Pickup and the Cowboy

When I was a five years old, I had a Davy Crockett coonskin cap that I wore everywhere and everyday until it fell apart. Some pickup drivers choose the pickup truck not because they want the rugged functionality the vehicle has traditionally offered, but for how they think it makes them look to others. In a European setting the pickup truck looks like an alien vessel, but Britons looking for an all American pick up truck can have one imported by American Cowboy. When the snobs in England start driving pickups, the end of civilization cannot be far off.

Another sign of the end times (for wannabe pickup drivers) is redneck jokes. Two suffice to make my point:

"How can you tell if a redneck is married? There is [sic] tobacco spit stains on both sides of his pickup truck."

"Dear Bubba: Three of your friends went off a bridge in a pickup truck. Butch was driving. He rolled down the window and swam to safety. Your other two friends were in the back, they drowned because they couldn’t get the tailgate down. Love Mama"

Walter is the Director of the Automotive Analysis Division of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). He studies the adoption by consumers and automakers of new powertrain (electric, hybrid, clean diesel, fuel cell, alternative fuels), safety, and telematics technologies. Walter worked for General Motors for 9 years in sales forecasting, product development, marketing, and manufacturing (1993 found him on the floor of one of GM’s component factories). Prior to joining the University, he was Executive Director of Forecasting and Analytics for J.D. Power and Associates. He earned his doctorate in Economics from UCLA in 1983.